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How to run a mobile diary study with SMS

2 minute read
Last updated April 11, 2018

Photo of a woman standing looking down at her phone

SMS and MMS messaging is a simple way to get qualitative data for ethnographers, UX researchers, and market researchers.

This relatively unknown method of running diary studies gives you contextual, qualitative data from people living their life as they live it, not after the moment has passed. Everyone knows how to send and receive text messages, all phones support it around the globe, and it’s easy to set up while being cost-effective.

What are the benefits of SMS?

The present, not the past

Rather than asking people to recall what they did or how they felt in a particular moment (like you might do with a survey), interceptive texting allows participants to respond quickly and immediately with a short message using a method they’re already familiar with.

Busy participants don’t need to fill out a long journal entry at the end of an exhausting day. Simply replying to a few text messages throughout the day feels more lightweight than slogging through a diary entry or survey, so you can expect a lower dropout rate with SMS-based studies.

Research conducted in this fashion is excellent for following people throughout a process. For example you might want to learn about people’s experiences house-hunting, or applying for a new passport.

Everyone can figure it out

Everyone knows how to send and receive text messages, including your parents! Likewise for kids. A great use case we heard the other day was about a social services agency using SMS-based research to get children’s perspectives throughout the adoption process.

The language of 6 billion people

SMS is a world standard. It’s been around for a long time, so all mobile phones in all countries support it by default. This allows you to run truly global studies with a large and diverse pool of participants. You don’t need to rely on them owning a smartphone, installing an app, or even having a data connection for SMS and MMS to work.

What are some downsides?

Length of replies

People type less on phones, so an SMS-based diary study will result in shorter answers from participants. Some researchers mix SMS with another collection method like email or a blog that the participants fill out each day.

No multiple choice questions

Due to the nature of SMS being conversational, there isn’t an easy way to ask multiple choice quantitative questions. Questions should be ‘open-ended’ to get the most valuable insights.


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All guides/User research